Tag Archives: Travel with kids

Back from Costa Rica, into the “Real World”

In the previous two posts, we talked a little about why and how we came to spend half a year in Costa Rica with our two boys, aged nine and 12, and touched on the irreplaceable education we all four acquired from this experience.  Here Paul talks about the aftermath.

All good things must end.

We ran out of money in Costa Rica perhaps ten days earlier than we’d planned, and so booked our travel back home around the time of the first few showers of the impending rainy season.  Including our air fare, as well as various tours and admissions, our average cost of living for the entire six months was about half of what it would have been had we stayed home.  Since we’d canceled our lease and put everything in storage, we had few other expenses during that time.  However, there was other financial fallout.

We spent one morning "helping" make caramelized sugar the old-fashioned way

We spent one morning “helping” make caramelized sugar the old-fashioned way

We quickly rented a new home, but before we’d even had the storage containers delivered, we learned that our company had suffered a major crisis in recent days.  My partners had taken the unprecedented step of laying almost everyone off – including themselves, Cheryl and me.  So there we were with a new lease and no jobs.  I won’t say it was easy to recover, but things did work out.  Cheryl, who had been the work-at-home Mom, eventually found a full-time job outside, and she still works there ten years later.  I picked up the slack at my former company by sub-contracting there part time, allowing me to take on more of the at-home parenting role for the next few years.  The company never fully recovered and we wound it down a few years later.

We had originally thought we might buy a house again, but the experience of being mortgage-free – together with our employment uncertainty – had us defer the purchase.  By the time our finances looked better, the real estate market looked overpriced and we stayed out.  We still rent – not a bad thing, as it turned out.

Packing up after our whitewater rafting adventure

Packing up after our whitewater rafting adventure

Despite all this, Cheryl and I never wavered.  This was one of the best things we ever did for our kids.

Still, I thought I’d best verify this again, and so I asked our two boys, now in their 20s, how they would sum up their experience.  (They had not yet read the earlier blog posts.)

Al, the younger, said emphatically that it was the best thing we’d ever done as a family.  It wasn’t just all those exciting adventures, including all those new animals he “never knew even existed.”  Most important, he said, was just that “time out of time”, when he and the rest of us could escape from the relentless schedule of everyday life, and for a few months, follow our spirits and our curiosity.

Dennis, who was still 11 when we were planning the trip, even wrote me something:

New friends visiting at our Costa Rican country house

New friends visiting at our Costa Rican country house

I remember vividly the day my parents told us we would be moving to Costa Rica for six months.  We were walking through our favourite city park when they dropped the bombshell on us.  I remember being pretty upset at first, especially when they said I couldn’t bring my Game Boy.  Fast forward 13 years later, and I can safely say I have absolutely no regrets regarding the trip.  I got to be surrounded by warm weather, awesome animals, cheap delicious food, and learn the Spanish language.  We lived on a farm, in an apartment, in the house of a Costa Rican family, in hotels, motels, inns on the mountain, bungalows by the beach, you name it.  I have dozens of interesting stories to tell from that six-month period, and it was definitely an experience I hope to repeat someday with my own kids.

Whew!  (I hope he still says that after he sees the picture in Part 2.)

Yes, it was worth it.  If you are reading this, and considering creating your own family adventure, and holding back … just go for it.

The beach at Manuel Antonio Park is busier than most we saw - and that means spunky monkeys!

The beach at Manuel Antonio Park is busier than most we saw – and that means spunky monkeys!

After I’d returned from Costa Rica, with the failing fortunes of our business partnership, I found myself years later confiding in one of my favourite career counselors.  I had the impression that my peers in the high tech industry looked askance at me because I had other interests – because I was willing to put my job on hold for half a year to go traveling with my family.  She told me that, in her experience, many parents work their whole lives, hoping “one day” to be able to do what Cheryl and I had done … and many never do.  It was good hear her acknowledgment.  Since that time, even some of my peers have admitted to taking inspiration from what our family did.  Some have admitted to envy.  Some have even compared me to the

A cemetery in San José, Costa Rica

A cemetery in San José, Costa Rica

fabled Mexican fisherman in this story.

I was reminded again of my priorities and Cheryl’s when I read “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, a short review of a book by the same name.  The author, a palliative nurse who worked with the terminally ill, had made a short list of the things she heard most frequently from those who were running out of time:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • Amazing butterflies seemed to be everywhere

    Amazing butterflies seemed to be everywhere

    I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Referring to the second point, she went on, “They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.”

During our family’s six month adventure in Costa Rica, we truly experienced each other’s companionship, our children’s youth – and, truth be known – our own.

What do you want to experience?  What will you miss if you don’t?

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Take your Kids on the Trip of a Lifetime

When our two boys were in elementary school, like many parents we knew, we had a dream of taking them on an extended trip overseas, the Trip of a Lifetime “one day”.  If this sounds like you, we hope Paul’s account of how we created our own family adventure inspires you to realize your dream.  Time is fleeting.  Make it happen!

The conversations at our place started about the time our younger boy hit grade one.  With the oldest only eight, we still had a few years to plan this, we thought.  Yet the years go by quickly, in a whirl of school calendars, baby-sitters, holidays, childhood crises, friends who need attention, and the demands of busy careers.  We had also taken on an ambitious project to create a small low-cost cabin on an island – a task that took four years to complete.  It would have been so easy to sail right through our parenting years without ever getting away on our dream trip.

The view from Paul's favourite spot on the windjammer (it wasn't the tiller)

The view from Paul’s favourite spot on the windjammer (it wasn’t the tiller)

Happily for our dreams, we had built a small network of friends and acquaintances who encouraged us in our ravings and fantasies.  We kept on dreaming, and talking about our hopes.

I had always had a fascination with sailing, and those who went on long voyages driven by the willful wind.  Real and imagined accounts like “Two Years before the Mast” and “Swiss Family Robinson” had been youthful staples.  Naturally enough, my first idea was to take the family on a yearlong sailing trip.  What could be more romantic and adventurous?  I’d even been sailing a few times, although Cheryl’s exposure was limited to a couple of Windjammer cruises in the Caribbean.

If, in those days, we’d had WikiHow, I might have been taken in by their two-page FAQ “How to Sail Around the World”.  A reality check convinced me that the full-time sailing life was not for us.  My skipper friends suggested that the business of sailing might not match my romantic notions.  One of them reminded me that Cheryl had already had a nodding acquaintance with “mal de mer” on the placid seas around the island of Sint Eustatius.

Did sailing in light airs off Sint Maarten give Paul a false sense of security about a round-the-world trip?

Did sailing in light airs off Sint Maarten give Paul a false sense of security about a round-the-world trip?

I discovered that the teenager who mowed our lawn had actually been on such a trip, sailing around the world over a two-year period with his family.  He and his mother even wrote a book.  Reading their account of Mom & Dad manhandling the tiller through hurricane conditions – with the two kids lashed to the mast and doped up with Gravol – had me see the dream could well become a nightmare.

Not wanting to give up on the round-the-world part, we edited the foundering sailboat out of the dream and started looking at commercial airfares.  While good packages existed for traveling around the world, we were still looking at a substantial outlay.  Meanwhile, the pencil ticks on the boys’ doorframes crept relentlessly higher, and their scheduled homework grew longer term-by-term.  We imagined a shrinking window of opportunity before our older boy hit his teens, and school and peer pressures derailed our plans.

We made our first real step when we sold our house to follow our kids’ schooling opportunities – the second such sale in five years.  Thinking we should “stay loose” if we were serious about traveling in the next few years, we returned to renting.  Paying off the mortgage and seeing money in the bank gave a big boost to our plans.

Island life around the cabin kept us busy for a few years

Island life around the cabin kept us busy for a few years

Our plans also continued to evolve.  We replaced the idea of spending most of our travel budget on airfare, and much of our travel time in airports, with a plan for extended “slow travel” in just one country.  Why not really get to know a place?  All we had to do was pick a country, … and set a date.  Ah, the dreaded commitment, that moment of stepping onto the roller coaster!  We hesitated.  The boys turned eight and eleven.

That year, we had our second break when a friend told us she wanted to do something similar.  Her kids and ours were playmates so doing something together might work out.  Our friend also inspired us to take the plunge.  If a single mother on a lower budget could do this, then what excuse did we have?  “What do you think about Costa Rica?” she asked.

Costa Rica appealed to us.  It was different enough yet not too scary: one of few Latin American countries that had never had a violent overthrow of government.  It had a good medical system, so we weren’t too concerned about the kids getting sick without help, or a bite from the deadly Fer de Lance far from anti-venom.  (Parents worry about such things)  Even in 2000, mosquito-borne diseases were limited to a few sections of the country, and we learned you could drink water straight from the tap almost everywhere.  Compared to my travel in Brazil in the 70s, this seemed quite manageable with kids.  I could get by in Spanish, so we could escape from English yet not be all at sea.  Best of all, we loved the focus on eco-tourism and outdoor adventures.  Oh, did I mention it was warm and sunny during our winter?

Paul and his two partners about a year before we left

Paul and his two partners about a year before we left

Cheryl and I held our breath, and made the commitment to go during the following school year, a little less than a year distant.  We began announcing our intentions and making arrangements.  Over the following six months:

  • We negotiated open-ended unpaid leaves for both Cheryl and me.  At that time, we both worked in a company in which I had a part-interest.  We had been talking about doing this for three years, so, it was relatively easy.  In hindsight, it turned out to be harder than we imagined, but that’s a story for later.
  • We gave notice on our lease.  Rather than keep our home – and a place to fret about – we chose to put everything we owned into a couple of portable storage containers.  Moving all the furniture and belongings from a typical four-bedroom house into some containers in the driveway sounds like a lot of work – but in the excitement of the impending trip, it didn’t seem so bad.  We arranged to spend the last few weeks before our trip at my parents’ place.
  • We formally registered our boys for homeschooling that school year, which would be grades four and seven for them.  In prior years, we had been part of a parent-managed Montessori school, and we chose it as our formal school partner for this registration.  The teachers offered us a few helpful suggestions, mostly around not worrying about it too much, with perhaps a bit of work on mathematics and Spalding Rules for spelling.
  • We all signed up for some elementary Spanish classes – not that the boys paid much attention.
  • We arranged to handle the finances that we couldn’t put on hold.  This primarily consisted of a good conversation with our bank manager, and enrolling my Dad to fill in any gaps.
  • We visited the local travel clinic and had all our recommended shots … and then some.
Our first discovery in CR was a local Montessori school

Our first discovery in CR was a local Montessori school

The Internet was just coming into its own as a place of travel research, so research we did.  We also canvassed our contacts for helpful ideas:  best flights, where to go in Costa Rica, what to see, what to do, best time to visit, and where to start?  By the time we said good-bye to my parents and boarded the plane for San Jose, we were about as ready as we could be.  In a future post, I’ll talk more about the planning for the trip, and the trip itself.  The unanimous vote:  it was the best six months of all our family years!

What’s your travel dream for your family?  What are you doing to make it a reality?